Have you ever heard of the Stylites? No, it’s not the name of an easy-listening R&B group from the Seventies, although good guess. Actually, stylites were religious ascetics who practiced self-denial in order to focus on spiritual development. The word “stylite” comes from the Greek stylos, meaning pillar, because they were the religious forerunners of modern-day pole-sitters. The original stylite was St. Simeon who lived in the fifth-century and sat on a pillar near Aleppo, Syria for 37 years. You might say he was the patient saint of pole-sitting.
David Blaine, the street magician and performance artist is a contemporary version of a stylite, who has performed many public feats of endurance, such as being enclosed in a coffin for a week, encased in a block of ice for almost three days, and in the tradition of St. Simeon, standing on a small platform on top of an eighty-foot high pillar in New York City for thirty-five hours.
In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength , Roy Baumeister and John Tierney interviewed Blaine to try to understand how (if not why) he develops the discipline to accomplish these amazing feats of endurance to see if there are lessons that normal people can learn from him to strengthen their own self-control.
They learned about his extensive training to build mental and physical stamina for each of the stunts, which they recount in their book. They use this illustration to bolster their belief that anyone can train themselves to improve their ability to maintain self-control for normal tasks like dieting.
But to me, the most interesting part of this extended anecdote was what he said after they explained to him why they were interested in his preparations and shared their thoughts about strengthening willpower. Blaine, unprompted, told them what happens after the performance is over.
That makes perfect sense…when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal…I have self-control in every aspect of my life…I eat perfectly…I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control…I don’t overindulge. But as soon as I’m done with that, I go to the opposite extreme, where I have no self-control, and it seems to spread through everything…After a stunt I’ll go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds in three months.”
He provided an example of that pattern by describing what he was doing at the time of that interview:
You’re catching me at a time when I’m the opposite of disciplined…I’ll eat perfectly for ten days and then eat like a maniac for twenty. And then, when I’m ready to train again, when I get really serious, I’ll drop about three pounds a week, and that stays consistent, so I’ll drop twelve pounds a month. So in five months, I’m completely transformed and my discipline levels are really high. It’s amazing. I have self-discipline in work, but I have none in my life sometimes.
Then they offer an explanation of this wildly erratic behavior: “Why did keeping up a modicum of discipline…seem so difficult at the moment? Because he didn’t have the motivation. He had nothing to prove to the public or to himself [!]” (Emphasis and incredulity are mine, and probably yours). They conclude that this behavior is really in the same category as what we all struggle with when we try to maintain self-discipline over the long term.
Well, I don’t know about “we all” but most people I know don’t act like that just because they “have nothing to prove.” Blaine’s description of his behavior sounds more like a caricature of binge eating disorder than a paradigm of self-control, regardless of what feats of endurance he occasionally performs. In fact, the whole point of working on improving self-control, in their view, is precisely to avoid this type of total depletion. Not only was he unable to maintain normal discipline; he had serious problem controlling some intensely extreme impulses.
In their muscle metaphor, Blaine is the equivalent of the circus strongman. You wouldn’t expect to hear The Mighty Atom talking about how weak he is between shows. Rather than build up his willpower strength, Blaine’s highly disciplined training and performances were followed by an enormous backlash that was just as intensely extreme as the training.
When you look at it like that, I would agree that we all do the same thing to some degree. Since he took his restraint to one extreme, he had to compensate by abandoning restraint to the same degree. If we view binge behavior in the same way – as an active correction of a perceived imbalance of control rather than a passive failure of self-discipline – we can offer a clear approach to helping people improve their ability to regulate their behavior in a healthier way: no restrictive dieting, no cleansings, no extremes. Just simple moderation.